Why do people volunteer?

World Values Day logo
Janet Thorne
Chief Executive at Reach Volunteering

Most people are motivated to volunteer by their 'compassionate' values. We need to get better at talking about this: research shows that the more we celebrate these values, the more they will inspire people to give or engage in civic action. This is crucial right now.

We live in a time when more and more bits of life are being monetised and sold, from our spare rooms to our unwanted clothes. So why has there been such a huge surge in people wanting to volunteer? To donate their time and labour for free? At Reach we've seen double the number of people signing up to volunteer those same skills that they use to earn their living - and over the spring and summer this more than trebled. What are the values that underpin people's willingness to do this?

Over the last few decades we've been encouraged to think that people's strongest values are 'extrinsic' ones like status and wealth (see the purple section below). This has influenced how people talk about volunteering, and how they try to encourage more of it. The recent Kruger report suggests a new volunteer passport scheme which offers 'credits' or discounts for volunteers. Even charities often promote volunteering by drawing on extrinsic rewards such as how it could improve your CV, or how trusteteeship can be useful for professional networking.

This is not only misdirected, it's counter productive.

In our experience at Reach, people are motivated to volunteer by 'intrinsic' values - a desire to feel part of their community, to gain a broader understanding of life, to protect nature, to build social justice. More widely, the growth of mutual aid groups and climate activism seem to be fuelled by these same intrinsic values.

This is backed by research from the Common Cause Foundation which finds that people are commonly motivated by their intrinsic values to give (time or money). What's more, their work shows that if you focus people's attention on their intrinsic values, your relationship with them will be more durable, and they are more likely to give of themselves to other causes too. It's like a civic muscle that gets stronger with use. The opposite is also true: by focusing on extrinsic rewards, like a discount, you create a fleeting transactional relationship and you are likely turn off that more generous motivation. In other words, you could actually decrease the likelihood that they will volunteer.

Schwartz theory of basic values. Source: David Potts blog on the theory of basic values and its implications

This really matters right now. We need to give more, and do more to get through this pandemic, to build a more equitable society and to tackle the climate emergency. We need to notice, act on and celebrate values like compassion, social justice and self-direction. It will strengthen the resolve of people who already give their time, money and energy to a 'larger us' and it will encourage and embolden others to do so too.


Thursday 15 October 2020 is World Values Day.

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